June 17, 2009

Thinking about Willamette Valley AVAs

Today I listened to the latest podcast from the guys at Graperadio. The theme? Trying to taste the uniqueness of the six sub-AVAs (American Viticultural Areas) of Oregon's Willamette Valley. For the unintiatied, that's Dundee Hills, Chehalem Mountains, Ribbon Ridge, Eola-Amity Hills, Yamhill-Carlton District, and McMinnville.

The episode wasn't my favorite. It's hard to taste wine on the "radio" and make it as compelling for the listener as some of their interviews. But I'm geeky enough to have enjoyed it, and it made me think of a provocative article in the May issue of the Oregon Wine Press by A-Z co-owner Bill Hatcher questioning the basis for these sub-AVAs. Visiting the OWP website tonight, I see that four prominent local vintners have posted rebuttals to Bill's article.

Bill essentially says that Oregon is a niche brand among wine drinkers across the US, but a strong one to those passionate about what our state produces. Yet most of them couldn't tell you where Oregon even is, much less where Yamhill-Carlton is compared to the Dundee Hills, or why wines from the two areas would even taste distinct for anyone to care. The AVAs aren't helping. We should instead promote "Oregon" on every wine label and not worry about essentially meaningless sub-AVAs, at least at this point. Obviously, others disagree strongly.

The Graperadio piece exemplifies both sides of the argument well. In pairings of pinot noir bottlings from each AVA, Jay, Rusty, and Eric try to pinpoint (pun intended Jay) the essence of each area. The Dundee Hills signature of red fruit and bright acidity comes through clearly. Mostly, however, they find it difficult.

Perhaps the ripe 2006 vintage that they largely tasted from obscures the subtlties of each AVA. Or perhaps Bill Hatcher is right. The overly large AVAs with varying soil types and exposures simply don't bring anything specific or consistent enough to the profile of the AVA's wines to do the consumer much good. You just can't taste the difference.

Then I read the rebuttals and I can't help but think David Adelsheim, Ken Wright, Ted Casteel, and Harry Peterson-Nedry make terrific counter-arguments that admit the current limitations of our AVAs but emphasize their role on the path to greater meaning.

Adelsheim makes the point that wineries are in the business of educating consumers they sell to, and that in time we'll have more and more meaningful "sub-sub-AVAs" like Ribbon Ridge. Places limited in geographical area with fairly common soils that might have the best chance to reflect meaningful commonalities among producers in the area.

Wright speaks to the deep, involved process that led to the creation of the AVAs. It wasn't slam bang marketing. It was meaningful collaboration largely focused on common "mother rock" in each area. There may be enough exceptions to dispute that, but if Hatcher's argument is correct that the market may be confused by the various AVAs, it's hard to argue at the same time that the AVA initiative is all about marketing. Clearly there's honest passion for the uniqueness of our viticultural areas behind the AVA movement.

Casteel makes the interesting point that the AVAs are akin to "neighborhoods" that naturally develop as the original, tight knit industry has grown. Everyone doesn't fit in the Tigard fire deparment for industry meetings anymore. It's right and good to sub-divide into regions that can provide the local scale for an industry that no longer fits into one house.

Finally, Peterson-Nedry emphasizes a point the others touch upon. Hatcher's business with A-Z is big by local standards. He needs to find lots of customers in a highly competitive, almost commodity driven price range. His concerns are not the same as a smaller, more premium wine focused enterprise. Peterson-Nedry gives a baseball example. Hatcher is looking for people to get on base with Oregon wine. But many others are after customers who are already one base, looking to advance beyond the entry level of brand Oregon to something more meaningful and specific to them.

In the end, it's clear our AVAs have a long way to go to show real distinctness in their wines. And it's true. Do people in Illinois really know (or care, yet) about McMinnville vs. Ribbon Ridge? Yet I think the industry is right to be forward looking. If you're reading here, you're probably a wine lover. Do you know Oltrepo Pavese from Valtellina? Perhaps, and I applaud that. Perhaps not, but it's not because there isn't something to learn and appreciate about those distinct districts in northwestern Italy. I guess it might just depend on how much wine you have to move.


Andy Perdue said...

Vincent, as I've come to expect from you, this was an insightful post that should be read by every lover of Northwest wine.

As you know, Wine Press Northwest spent a fair bit of time searching for distinctiveness between the six AVAs. I felt we found it, too. Certainly, the differences were greatest between the Dundee Hills and the other five, though the Eola Hills also showed great distinction.

Oregon is a small but important niche. Those who buy the high-end PNs are the wine lovers who are most likely to want to learn about and explore these (dare I say) Burgundy-like appellations.

For general wine consumers (such as those who purchase A to Z and King Estate across our great nation), the six AVAs mean little. But to wine lovers, they are the very essence of our passion.

Jay Selman said...

Andy, thanks for your comments.

Do you think it would be more interesting if we announced the wines in advance so consumers could go out get the wines and taste them "with us"?

Jay Selman said...

Sorry, I meant Vincent

Vincent Fritzsche said...

I'm with Jay. Thanks Andy for the comments. I appreciate your feedback.

But really, Jay, thank you for reading and commenting. As you may have seen here, I'm a big Graperadio fan, even if I'm critical of some things.

In this case, I think it's just the nature of tasting on the radio. As I wrote, I enjoyed it in a geeky way. But if wine speak is cryptic to people hearing it in person, and even more cryptic reading people like me convey tasting impressions, it seems like it might be especially cryptic if you're hearing a group of people discuss it out loud. Having the wines might help, but really I don't think anyone's going to do that. As you mention in the episode, it's odd enough for many of us to open more than a couple things at once to compare. Even if people wanted to taste along, one would have to dig deep to find even some of the wines. Many wineries are on to 2007s already. Ultimately, I think you're taking a good approach with this kind of goal -- comparative tasting for a specific purpose. I enjoyed it. I guess it's just a little harder goal to accomplish than interviewing some of the great personalities you find in the wine world. Keep up the good work.

But no mention of my Pinpoint pun? [g]